Clapped out American cars and Cuba libres make this communist outpost and largest island in the Caribbean as timeless a tourist destination as anywhere else on the planet. Prices may seem unreasonably high, but then foreign tourists are of course paying for their own little slice of the revolution, nowhere more evident than in swinging Havana, the capital. Rum and Cuba’s infamous cigars are not optional.

Why You Should Go

What’s Cool: Balmy jazz, Havana Club Rum cocktails, the turquoise sea surrounding the island, Cuban homestays, John Lennon Park and the finest hand-rolled cigars in the world.

What’s Not: Tourist-unfriendly Cuban Convertible Pesos, the dual pricing system, often lousy food, severe restrictions on the locals and the enduring ban on US citizens.

When to Go

Not to far north of the equator, Cuba does not see too many variations in temperature, although there are two distinct seasons. The dry winter season between November and April is less humid yet warm with cool nights. From May to October, the rains come and the whole island is that little bit more sticky and hot.

Getting There & Away

Cuba is fairly well connected to the rest of the world; accept of course to arch-enemy the US. Havana is the main point of entry from the rest of the Caribbean, South America, Canada and Europe, but scheduled flights are also available to the popular upscale beach resort Varadero. Around the island, buses are the most convenient form of transport and vary drastically in quality and price depending on the company. Foreigners pay more, of course. In the cities, specifically in Havana, no visit would be complete without a ride on an El Camello. Think of a vehicle that you might expect an American wrestler to drive to a particularly extravagant party and you won’t be far off the mark.

Health & Safety

For a country whose citizens earn just a fraction of the minimum wage in the west, the fact that crime is low and the health service is of a high standard are among the many surprising aspects of life in Cuba. However, pharmacies hark back to the more unsavory days of communism and are poorly stocked, so bring any necessary medication with you. To be on the safe side, some visitors here may want to avoid dairy products and eggs which are mostly not pasteurized and therefore run the risk of upsetting delicate western digestive systems.

Food & Hospitality

What Cuba lacks in quality food and good value accommodation it makes up for in friendliness and fun. Hotels are as expensive here for tourists as they are in Europe or North America but good value can be had at the casas particulares, or homestays, which offer the perfect introduction to Cuban life at low prices compared to standard accommodation. Although Cuban cuisine is bland for the most part, there are occasional cafés and restaurants that offer good food, but don’t expect them to be cheap. The sale of beef or lobsters, for example, are banned outside of government hotels, a clear indicator of just how restricted some parts of everyday Cuban life remain. Just don’t expect to eat at a McDonald’s.

Itineraries

The highlights of little Cuba can be seen in no less than 10 days, but you may need extra time for lazing on the beach while taking into account that transport around the island might not always run like clockwork.

  • Four days sightseeing in the capital Havana when the sun is up and partying after dark.
  • Two days in Trinidad, home of quaint colonial architecture, salsa in the main square during the evenings and abundant waterfalls just out of town.
  • Two days in Santa Clara, the resting place of Che Guevara and home of revolution-related places of interest.
  • Three days in Jardines Del Rey, a chain of undeveloped islands with great beaches, just off the north coast.

Extra time

  • Two days in the second city Santiago de Cuba, a coastal destination oozing Caribbean charm.
  • Two days in Vinales, a city surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery.
  • One day in Pinar del Rio, a must for cigar enthusiasts looking to take a Cuban souvenir home.

Highlights

Havana: timeless colonial architecture and a lazy, holiday vibe make this seafront capital an integral part of any visit to Cuba.

Trinidad: Cuba in a nutshell and a little slice of salsa surrounded by stunning scenery.

Santa Clara: a pilgrimage site for socialist revolutionaries across the planet and the resting place of Che Guevara.

Santiago de Cuba: is the main party town on the island and as popular with locals as it is with tourists.

Jardines Del Rey: more diverse and down-to-earth than the ever-popular seaside resort Varadero.

Pinar del Rio: home of the ever-popular Cuban cigar and the best place to stock up on the island.

Baracoa: formerly Cuba’s capital for three years and a quaint beach resort on the east of the island.

Activities

Sightseeing: with plenty of colonial and revolutionary era monuments on display, Cuba is a laid-back destination that is also easy on the eye.

Dancing: salsa fans flock to Cuba from all over the world, but you won’t need to be an expert to enjoy Latin America’s favorite rhythms.

Partying: friendly locals, abundant festivals and lots of rum mean that many Cuban nights extend long into the morning.

Diving: the Caribbean Sea here is as inviting as it is elsewhere in the region, and many areas of the island are perfect for snorkeling and diving.

Festivals & Events

Mix salsa, sun and a healthy dose of rum for a party that is not quite like any other. The following are not to be missed:

February: Varadero is a festival that is held for tourists the main beach resorts.

May: the workers’ holiday on the 1st is a major date for communist Cuba, marked with parades and marches.

July: five-day congas and lots of salsa make the Carnaval de Santiago one of the most raucous in the Cuban festival calendar.

December: Havana International Jazz Festival, an institution in its own right.